Anarchist Anthropology

Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology

by David Graeber
Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology

There has been some controversy recently over the “firing” or “letting go” (depending on your perspective) of associate professor and self-describe anarchist David Graeber of Yale University. I’m in no position to form an opinion on the justification of his dismissal (nor are most people who have formed an opinion from what I’ve seen). Most point to his scholarly qualifications, which are no doubt manifest, as testament to the injustice being meted out. I would simply point out that there are more factors that are examined when making a commitment to a new member of an organization; someone whose professed ideology is based on the active disruption of systems of control might not be someone that others want to work with regardless of his other merits.

The whole dust-up was ultimately not that interesting; it broke down along the expected lines of division. But in following the discussion, I came across a link to Graeber’s remarkable pamphlet-length essay, “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology” which is available as a free PDF download. Update: actually that free download seems to be gone. Damn capitalists! Update: My mistake. I was overly aggressive in my use of AdBlock and it had removed the link to the PDF!

I couldn’t agree with many of his points, but he presented arguments that gave me a different perspective on issues such as democracy and traditional cultures. But his vision of self-governance is ultimately impractical and perhaps even dangerously utopian. He attempts to inoculate Anarchism from any association with the horrors inflicted by uptopianists by saying that everyone should be utopian in outlook even if it can never be achieved; that imagination should be a core political principle. While this is certainly an admirable outlook, the overall tone is rather tendentious.

He presents Anarchism as more of an attitude that has existed as long as mankind itself, than as a set of theories; the reason why it hasn’t been codified into a theoretical framework is that practitioners never thought is was necessary to do so; it was just the way they chose to live. Anarchism shares many of the same goals as Marxism, but is more focused on action than theory or analysis. In fact, it’s against the whole concept of “policy” which by its very nature implies some manner of enforcement.

His critique of majoritarian democracy is a bit jarring. He sees the idea of “The People” as being a fiction that simply allows a bureaucracy to take over. Anarchists don’t want a representative government; they want direct democracy where decisions are made by consensus. He makes the interesting point that democracies weren’t recognized in some cultures simply because there wasn’t an explicit vote. His point is that there are other forms of democracy that are more consensus-based – this is anarchism and it’s the foundation of many traditional cultures. And this is where anthropologists come in: since they have such a vast storehouse of knowledge on how different societies work, they should have a voice in the political conversation.

Its hard to see how this could scale up to the level of national policies though. He states that modern societies have not abandoned the principles that make up more traditional societies. This may be true, but the hallmark of a modern society is the level of specialization that it both requires and allows.

How would such a society come about? Through a withdrawal he says – a coming together of different groups to achieve common purposes while ignoring the current system. Primitive societies have shown how this can be done. He makes the interesting point that in the past it has been Western societies that have been pushing their views of governance onto the third world, but recently, some have been turning to the third world for examples of new modes of social interaction. He gives the example of anarchist groups who studied the collectivist decision making of the Zapatistas in Mexico as a guideline.

Overall the work is a compelling, eye-opening read regardless of your political views.

» Posted: Sunday, May 22, 2005 | Permanent Link